Saving Lake Winnipeg – A Manitoba Treasure

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Canada is also blessed to have the largest freshwater system on earth.  About 60% of our freshwater flows north toward the Arctic, which itself represents roughly two-thirds of our maritime coastline.  As Canadians, we are well aware of our freshwater wealth, yet have for too long taken it for granted.  It is the greatest resource we have that sustains, ultimately, everything.  On the verge of the new millennium, I asked the Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans to take a closer look at the state of our freshwater and northern fisheries in Manitoba and the Arctic.  Throughout the spring and summer of 2000, the committee travelled to cities and towns in Manitoba, Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Nunavik to see first-hand and hear from those involved with fisheries and water ecosystems.

The first region the committee would visit was my home province of Manitoba.  In addition to Winnipeg, I was pleased that the committee also decided to visit my hometown of Gimli, Manitoba, on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, the tenth largest freshwater lake in the world.  After meeting with representatives of the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, the committee heard from Dr. Al Kristofferson, the coordinator and now managing director of the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium (LWRC).   Senators heard about the immense work that the LWRC does in monitoring the health of the Lake Winnipeg ecosystem.  Formed in 1998 and incorporated in 2001, the consortium “facilitates multi-disciplinary scientific research; encourages the sharing of information among stakeholders; and assists in the coordination of specific research ventures involving universities, governments and private interests.”  The former Canadian Coast Guard ship, the Namao, has been the vessel and chief instrument with which the LWRC has been operating for regular research runs in order to take samples of the Lake’s water.

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The Namao

As a Senator representing Manitoba, the health of Lake Winnipeg has always been my foremost environmental concern. For many decades, the health of Lake Winnipeg has been under threat.  The quality of its water and the vitality of its ecosystems have deteriorated considerably.  By the late 1990s, the alarming amounts of blue-green algae on our shores had made it evident that more needed to be done to protect this massive body of water, which generations of fishermen, tourists and local families have enjoyed and even relied on for sustenance.  The LWRC’s research activities and findings served to confirm the state of the Lake.  The committee heard that the Lake was “approaching a state of deterioration that would affect ecosystem sustainability; significant changes had occurred in water transparency, biological species composition, productivity and sediment chemistry; the Lake was on a path of progressive eutrophication (degradation through nutrient enrichment) not unlike that seen in the lower Great Lakes during the late 1960s; the discovery of an exotic species of zooplankton is an indication that environmental conditions are changing; and the recent invasion of rainbow smelt could change the structure of the Lake’s food web.”

Since these initial findings, the threats faced by the Lake have not abated however, the response by municipal, provincial and federal authorities has fortunately improved.   Our report, entitled “Selected Themes on Canada’s Freshwater and Northern Fisheries“, was released in February of 2002.  Among the committee’s 12 recommendations, we specifically called for the Government of Canada and all other appropriate jurisdictions, to actively encourage and financially support the formation of organizations, such as the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium, that promote public- and private-sector partnerships as well as collaborative and cooperative research.  In the intervening decade, much would be done by the federal government and the province of Manitoba to address the threats faced by the Lake and support the organizations that have been at the forefront of monitoring and protecting its ecosystem.  Environment Canada’s Lake Winnipeg Basin Initiative was established in 2007, which included almost $18 million for Phase I of the Lake Winnipeg Basin Stewardship Fund to support eligible organizations with the objective of reducing nutrient loads into the Lake.  The Fund successfully completed its first phase in 2012 and is currently in the middle of Phase II (2012-2017).

The province of Manitoba also enacted the Save Lake Winnipeg Act in June of 2011, which committed to protecting wetlands (the kidneys that filter out nutrients) and ultimately, reducing phosphorous loads in the Lake by 50%.  In 2013, the Lake Friendly Accord was signed by Manitoba and municipal jurisdictions along the Lake Winnipeg basin to leverage more resources to reduce nutrient loads.  In 2015, the state of Minnesota also signed onto the Accord.  Nevertheless, the campaign to restore this Lake, one on which I have many fond memories, back to a sustainable state of health, continues.